The Red & Black was recently able to sit down with Michelle Gates, the only registered write-in candidate for senator in the 2016 Georgia election, to discuss her motivations for running and plans for the state.
The Red & Black: Tell me about what inspired you to start your campaign.
Michelle Gates: So my husband joined the reserves after 9/11. And having him deployed to Afghanistan made me hyper-sensitive to what was going on internationally, and then more aware of how our Congress was handling things locally. And then I would have to say that throughout the eight years Obama has been president, the last six of having a Republican-led Congress has been frustrated all the way around. He’s signed numerous executive orders to enact things because Congress hasn’t passed legislation, and it’s just been completely dysfunctional all the way around. And we have a senator, Senator Isakson, who’s been in politics for over 40 years. So if the benefit of having somebody that has that experience is that they can move things along, then he’s failed, miserably. And I would say that after the tea party entered the House of Representatives, and that movement happened, it, in my opinion, undercut a lot of the seniority that other members of Congress had, because I think they believe that they had a mandate when they were elected. So for me it was basically watching nothing happen, and then in spite of what has been a horrible, horrible Presidential election, regardless of who gets elected President, it’s going to be Congress that actually passes legislation or doesn’t.
A pivotal point for me, though, would be watching the Supreme Court have an empty seat because, down party lines, they just refuse to hold hearings. And it’s the Senate’s obligation to hold hearings and then vote up or down for a nominee. Putting that off for what is going to be a year; I believe we’ll have this vacant seat for a year. We have a split Supreme Court, so we have things that have gone to the Supreme Court over the last several months and basically by having that seat empty, I believe it’s taken away that third branch of government, and I hold the Republican Party in the Senate responsible for that completely, and Mitch McConnell, specifically.
R&B: So if you were elected to the Senate, what would you do to help get that moving?
MG: If Hillary Clinton is elected, I actually believe that it’s going to be a very quick movement to hold hearings for the current nominee because I think he’s a more moderate voice than she might put forward. But the new Congress won’t be sat until next year, and let’s say that he’s passed on, and then we have to wait for a new nominee. The majority leader has to initiate that, but I would push that hearings start right away. I feel like it is a disservice to the American people not to at least hear the qualifications of the person that’s been nominated.
R&B: How would you vote if Merrick Garland were to be heard?
MG: This is my issue: because we haven’t had hearings, I don’t actually know his standings in most rulings in past decisions. That would be the purpose of having hearings, and they’d be publicized so we could watch them. But the things that I would look for, that are important to me. I would personally like to see if he’s ever posted a decisions on Citizens United versus F.E.C., because campaign finance reform, to me, is a really important aspect of what’s wrong in Washington now, and it’s something I would like to see addressed. I don’t believe our current Congress is going to do that, and Senator Isakson, having stayed in office for 40 years, has taken advantage of the type of lobbying that’s happened. And he’s built up a war chest over years that he gets to campaign off of and has indefinitely. That, and term limits, as far as reforms that I would like to see happen. Term limits are important.
R&B: You mentioned how you were worried by how Georgia senators and congressmen have been governing locally. Can you tell me more about that?
MG: Well, I’m not so concerned about local governance. Although I will say that in regards to the amendments that are on the ballot right now, in this election, Amendment One concerns me. I think how it’s worded and calling it an “Opportunity School District” sounds optimistic, but in reality it’s basically a state takeover of local school systems. I’m totally against that.
The other ballot measure that’s on is the amendment that on face value sounds like it’s a better oversight of our judges in this state, but in reality it takes what is currently a non-partisan oversight committee and makes it more of a political oversight, and I’m totally against that. So two of the amendments that are up for vote in this election are misleading in how they’re worded and unfair, but that’s not unusual.
[In an interview with The Red & Black], Senator Isakson gave an interview where some of the answers were really upsetting to me, as a parent of a 19 year old. Specifically regarding medicinal marijuana, and his suggestion when he was asked by the journalist if he supported the passage of medicinal marijuana, if he would support decriminalizing it. He said no, and his concern was that marijuana has an addictive quality that makes it too dangerous. His quote was that ‘Not all people that use marijuana become addicts, but all addicts started with marijuana.’ And we lost a family member to a heroin overdose, and she started on opioids, prescription medication. She never used marijuana. And there’s a lot of research to show that marijuana is a less addictive way to manage pain. If it can be managed that way, it can be used for controlling seizures, for anti-nausea medication, it can be used to help with anxiety and PTSD. So it’s my opinion that certain members of Congress are against this is because pharmaceutical companies realized that medicinal marijuana could replace a lot of pharmaceuticals that they are currently profiting off of. And that’s upsetting to me.
The other issue that came up that is relevant to young people is the issue of unplanned pregnancy, and what he would do to help reduce that, and his position on abortion. He basically stated that he believes the best way to control unplanned pregnancies is to exercise restraint — that’s the word he used — in their relationships. And the abstinence approach is incredibly uneducated, unrealistic and dangerous. It doesn’t acknowledge the statistics of premarital sex among young people, educating young people, making over-the-counter medication available to women the same way it is to men. I would definitely push that kind of reform if I were elected to Congress.
My other concern is that he wants to put boots on the ground in Syria. And my son had to register for the draft like all men did, and when that happens, it makes you realize that while we haven’t had a draft in several decades. If the United States really proposes a war on terror or on terrorism, first of all as a member of Congress, I would not personally vote for a declaration of war unless every other option had been looked into. And I believe that what is behind terrorism is more about ideology, and since it’s not specifically state-sponsored — yes there are state sponsors of terrorism — but unless we declare war against a particular country, this war is against ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, or any number of terrorist organizations all over the world. So unless we send troops everywhere, in some cases sovereign countries that don’t want us there, I think it’s unrealistic that that’s what we should do. It comes from Trump as well, and so it makes me nervous.
And if I had an opportunity to serve in the Senate, it’s something I would not only fight for, for young people and young citizens in Georgia. But I would be very transparent and open too with the constituency about what is happening in Washington. There’s a senator, Senator Gillibrand from New York — in fact, I think she took the seat that Hillary Clinton held — she started a practice when she became senator. She posts her daily schedule on her public website so every person in New York can see who she’s meeting with; she posts her whole budget, she posts all of the appropriations that are requested from anybody in her state, and any lobbyist activity that happens while she’s in her Senate position. I think all Americans deserve that, and I would definitely have that level of transparency if I were in the Senate.
R&B: You need 975,000 votes to initiate a run-off election. Tell me about how you plan to get that point.
MG: That’s one of the reasons why I reached out to [Stephen] Colbert’s show. Because one of the things I had not anticipated, even though I knew I was gonna be self-funding, I wasn’t using TV ads. I wasn’t using anybody behind me. As an independent, that wasn’t going to be the case. I was shocked about how difficult it was to get any acknowledgement from media, and in fact only a handful of newspapers have even printed write-in candidate information. It’s been particularly frustrating with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution because Jim Galloway is their political reporter and I’ve reached out to him a couple times, and even personally introduced myself to him after the debate, which I also wasn’t allowed to be in because I’m not on the ballot. And I could go into all the issues there are in Georgia, like ballot access. I would say it has been very educational for me, but when I found out that it would take 50,000 to 60,000 notarized signatures for me to have my name on the ballot as an independent. I said I didn’t think that was constitutional, and they said the write-in option was the only option available. Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, sued, and this year she got a temporary order that reduced it to 7,500. She actually got 10,000 signatures, but under the rules of the Secretary of State’s office, that they have to be qualified to register to vote, the Secretary of State’s office knocked off about 4,500 off of her list. She didn’t really have a way to refute it because she doesn’t know who is or is not registered to vote. So she didn’t meet it, so she’s also a write-in candidate.
In Georgia they only recognize the Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian Parties. And then if you’re an independent or another third party, you have to go to these extra steps. The exception is if there was a runoff election and I came in second — which would be an incredible hurdle to overcome at this point, just because of name recognition and I’m not on the ballot — in January my name would be on the ballot, and I would be listed as an independent. But it isn’t just that I’m in a write-in candidate that’s a hurdle; historically, Georgia has never elected an independent party to the Senate and Georgia has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate either. So this is still a couple decades behind other states in our country. We’re getting there, but even nationally, I think there are only 20 female senators right now. It’s really low consideration women make up half the population. The same could be said of people of color and people in the LGBT community. Until that changes and there’s changes in that representation, I don’t think our policies are going to catch up to where society is.
R&B: So how do you plan to get 975,000?
MG: The only way is to get my name out there, and it’s very frustrating to hear on the news that very many young people are not voting. There are many minority groups who are not voting because what might happen at the polls, or they’re really disgusted with both candidates and led to pick either one. What I would say to those voters is this: it really matters to vote, even if you vote for a third party for the president, and you register the fact that both the Democrats and Republicans put up someone you are not satisfied with. Really look at your Congressional nominees and pay attention to that. Even if it weren’t me, if it were someone who’s going to represent you in Congress because that legislation is so important to our daily lives. Whether it’s taxing, or it’s promoting jobs, increasing minimum wage. I’m frustrated that Isakson is determined to go back to Washington and to push religious liberty acts, and push that through because I find that discriminatory, and I don’t that reflects half of Georgia, about how we feel about these issues.
My advice would be to go to all the websites, to look at all the candidates for U.S. Senate and at their other Congressional seats and vote. Voting is the only way to make a difference.
R&B: You have a 19-year-old son in college, so I imagine that student debt is a conversation that you’ve had. How do you plan to tackle the exploding amount of debt among students?
MG: That’s an interesting to me because that’s what frustrated me about the Bernie Sanders campaign. While I totally get that there are other countries that just have free college, I would equate that to my son’s friends who just got a brand new car right when they turned 16 and the importance they placed in taking care of that car, versus my son, who had to save up money to buy a used car, and to pay cash for it and knows that since that’s his only mode of transportation, if it broke down then he would have a problem.
So because of our economic situation, we basically had to tell him, there’s HOPE scholarship, so I want you to focus on that because that HOPE Scholarship is your first step towards paying for your tuition. So I’m grateful that we have HOPE and Zell Miller, where you have to maintain a certain GPA. He’s also been forced to work all summer, both summers. And fortunately he’s got a co-op job that pays well because of his tech experience and his AP computer science experience. He was able to make very good money over the summer, and he was able to pay for his whole upcoming year without us having to contribute anything beyond HOPE.
So when I hear stories about people who are accumulating $50,000, $60,000 or $80,000 in debt. I’m wondering what they’re doing, to be perfectly honest, because a lot of it depends on where you go to school. And I want the piece of student costs that requires to be student loans, I want to keep the interest rate on those to two to three percent. I only think that we should try and make massive amounts of money on people investing in their future.
I would strongly discourage people from accumulating that debt. People, from what I’ve read, would get into these Ivy League schools or really expensive schools out of state. They’ll go into school anticipating their degree to earn them this much income, and then they graduate, really with $80,000 to 100,000 in debt because they were in an out-of-state school, and they can’t find a job making that kind of money.
I don’t think we can not have a student debt component, and there are student loans with interests rates that should be kept low.